In solidarity with Melissa Harris-Perry

Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC host and noted Unitarian Universalist (she wrote the foreword to the newest edition of the UU Pocket Guide), has walked off her show after being preempted again and again in favor on endless election coverage.

She said she had not appeared on the network at all “for weeks” and that she was mostly sidelined during recent election coverage in South Carolina and New Hampshire. (She was asked to return this weekend.)

In her email, Ms. Harris-Perry wrote that she was not sure if the NBC News chairman, Andrew Lack, or Phil Griffin, the MSNBC president, were involved in the way her show was handled recently, but she directed blame toward both.

“I will not be used as a tool for their purposes,” she wrote. “I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin or MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back.”

Prof. Harris-Perry is one of the few black women with a major position in TV news. Often the “election coverage” that pre-empts her show is just showing stump speeches live and other things that could be ignored or condensed.

I stand in solidarity with lack of respect for her show and the work she does. Her show has by far the most people of color as guests.


News shouldn’t just show candidates yelling at each other. it needs to explore how their policies and ideologies will affect communities of regular people. Only through diversity can that be analyzed.

From @existentialfish (link)

Cover to cover

This afternoon I had a personal first- the first time I’ve ever read a news magazine in its entirety, front-to-back. Past issues of The Economist and The New Republic have come close, but there was always a trailing off towards the end. There is nothing special about the June issue of Mother Jones. No special feature drew me towards it, just an interest in some investigative journalism in an era characterized by recycling and Wikipedia plagiarism.

What the experience ended up being about is countering the 21st century tendency to only read news funneled towards you. Many of us buy something off the news rack due to the main feature; an enticing headline makes the few dollars worth spending. Reading methodically gives you the full breadth of ideas, and gets you interested in topics that you’ve never been exposed towards. Another habit of mine is to listen to albums beginning-to-end. The catchy singles may be great, but there is satisfaction in a complete picture of what the band was trying to accomplish.

With Facebook and tailored news sites, there’s an immense temptation to gorge on old favorites. And every time you click on another story on Orange is the New Black, or marriage equality, or whatever, algorithms tilt even more towards those topics. To be sure, this has eliminated a lot of crap we have no interest in, but it also isolates us. Technology optimists are right, information is a wonderful thing, but it’s only useful if people see and use it.


Modern television news-
a dirge of
bourgeoise society
dragged out
for 24 hours a day;
agony made spectacle

The collapse of yet another
African republic from
one half-century
of high tragedy
a brief slice
of the crawl
between news regarding
reagents centuries
past their place
but whose grandfathers
hold all the blame,
stowed in marble

In dust and blood- Syria’s civil war shuffles past its third anniversary

Aftermath of a barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, Syria. Credit: Firas Badawi//Reuters
Aftermath of a barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, Syria.
Credit: Firas Badawi//Reuters

Last week the UN human rights head released a report indicating widespread use of torture by the Assad regime and many parts of the armed opposition- in particular religious hardliners.

An activist group estimated the total death toll in the Syrian civil war to be 150,000 a month ago. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, given that outside journalists are often targets.

After an initial nonviolent period, the Assad regime began using lethal force on protestors in April 2011. Thus it could be said that the Syria we see today was birthed three years ago.

Despite defeat, need for powerful and democratic American organized labor

Union membership versus middle class income.

So the vote is back from the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, and the workers there have rejected joining United Auto Workers by a few percentage points. Not surprisingly, union groups have condemned the election as rife with conservative interference. The South has long been the most hostile to any form of organized labor; a victory at a foreign-owned plant would have set a precedent to work off of.

Rich Yeselson, writing for the leftist magazine Jacobin, found the result predictable. Going over the various factors that contributed to the result:

Anybody can take the litany of factors I mention above and pick out the ones they think were most salient. Yes, the opposition of political elites was potent. Yes, the UAW neutralized VW, but, by turning it into a corporate pussycat, could barely provide a rationale for workers joining the union at all. Nor did it convey to the workers that it had the leverage to fight the company when necessary on their behalf, rather than accede to it as it had done with GM, Ford, and Chrysler.  Yes, it’s the mostly white South, and it was a likely largely evangelical workforce, to boot.

In an environment naturally hostile to unions, the advocates for change need to produce compelling reasons and tangible benefits. They were playing to an area where unions are viewed as part of a cast of evil- a worker grouped them in with Planned Parenthood, gun control, and the Democratic Party. Workers are stronger together than they are isolated and apart, but the most progress must be made in the most inhospitable places- not only in terms of perception, but the labor laws created in the past few decades.

What happened in Chattanooga is a bit of proof that unions like the UAW can’t get the key victories needed to reshape 21st century labor relations. It is not proof that there is no need for organized labor- but that the push should come from smaller and more unorthodox groups that can give the struggle the militancy and urgency it requires.

Justice without borders

Protesting high schoolers in France
Credit: Thomas Samson AFP/Getty

French high schoolers marched in solidarity with Leonarda Dibrani, a Roma girl who was detained by police during a school trip and deported with her family to Kosovo. Dibrani is one of many young individuals sent to her “home” country- despite not speaking any of the local languages, and not having any friends or contacts there.

Along with the Dream 8 (or 9), activists born in Mexico but raised in the United States who were arrested trying to cross the border north, these are clear examples of how immigration and citizenship are getting the way of the lives of people who don’t fit the mould. The huge quantity of deportations (which remains high, the majority of which are non-criminals) under the Obama administration includes many people who have no strong ties to their home country. Taking functional members of society, who are important members in their families and communities, and throwing them into another country with no support is barbaric.

The Dream 9. Credit: NPR
The Dream 9. Credit: NPR

If it’s not journalism, what is it?

One of the first examples of crowdsourced current events was on the Wikimedia sites in 2005. On July 7th that year a series of bombs went off in London, killing over fifty people. Starting with those that lived within earshot of the explosions, users attempted to create a Wikinews report, and then once it became clear that these were deliberate attacks, a Wikipedia article. Since these sites list all edits made to a page, you could see the evolution of knowledge. The initial edit is by a user with very little to go on. Two hours later the page has pictures, sources, and the beginnings of a timeline. Two hours after that, there are sections and a statement by the Prime Minister indicating a possible terrorist attack.

What this first example showed me was that the process of assembling a coherent (and factually accurate) narrative is ugly. You start with very little, and without fact-checking and additional, independent reports everything is by nature speculative. However, given some determination it is possible to put things together in an impressive bit of time. But the beginning is ugly and you’re going to be wrong quite a bit.

The shooting at the D.C Navy shipyard brings to the surface an inconvenient truth about major media outlets- especially TV news channels. John King’s on-air blunder in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings is only the most prominent recent case of this kind of grasping, speculative form of infotainment. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, among others, have ditched many of the cornerstones of journalism. It’s so egregious in the case of rapidly-changing current events that the question arises: is this even journalism anymore? And if it is not, what is it?

A couple key developments that strain credibility. First, the time-honored tradition of multiple independent sources, where two or more separate accounts of an event are required prior to reporting, is largely ignored. One sources often suffices, or the anchors simply interpret what is happening based on live camera footage. Instead of several people on the ground with local knowledge and different perspectives to the event, there are a couple news figures whose main job is to increase dramatic tension.

With the rise of social media juggernauts, verifiable sources are often replaced with the speculation and reports of the public at large. While this does have some use- it can give a more raw, immediate idea of what is happening. But a Twitter account that, for instance, states that they are within blocks of the shooting/flood/police raid cannot be quickly verified. Ultimately to accept the truth of a tweet posted three minutes ago, you have to accept the location, accuracy, and competence of the poster by faith.

Watching CNN deal with the Boston bombing and the ensuing manhunt gives the clear impression that there is no method or due diligence in their programming. On July 7th, 2005 information about what happened trickled in over hours for the more easily verifiable material, and days or weeks for things such as who conducted the bombing and why they did it. What 24-hour news channels have a habit of doing is filling in this gap with metaphorical sawdust. An important event does not always have news associated with it. Sometimes all that is known has been reported, and there is a gap until existing information is modified (say, a causality count) or new information appears (an apparent extra gunman, for instance).

So what is CNN and its ilk? In some cases it’s theater. Anchors hype up storylines that may or may not exist, and ascribe importance and meaning to events that are not clearly connected. During the election season CNN sported not one, but two tables of analysts. They each had a role to play- the intellectual, the smartass, the aww-shucks Cajun. One could also be less charitable still and call it bullshit. An hour of cable news can feel like a high school junior trying to write an eight page essay on a book they did not read. The crafting of artificial narratives (ascribing motive ten minutes after a crime is reported) also makes it feel like a séance. Instead of hard sources, why not pretend to be a mind-reader?

This is for the most part beating a dead horse. It is widely accepted that cable news is drivel. The takeover of MSNBC and Fox News by ideologues in place of standard news programming garners a lot of attention, but it overlooks how in the modern environment of social media and creating dramatic tension to increase ratings the regular news programming itself is less impartial and more speculative that one might think.

When we look at lessons from the slow death in print journalism, we should change the medium rather than the process. Journalism in the Internet age still exists (look at ProPublica, or the Center for Investigative Reporting) but discarding what made journalism so vital in the 20th century is dangerous. When it’s a rag-tag group of Wikinews volunteers, some sloppy reporting is excusable. When a large media outlet with researchers and an established set of standards do the same thing, it questions what they do with all those resources.